A screenshot for a map of the Chattanooga Zoo

A long time ago, it’s been maybe eighteen or twenty years now, I worked at the Chattanooga Zoo. I had volunteered there the summer before, helping out with a week-long day camp, and applied for a job as a camp counselor the next with a brand-spanking new teaching certificate. I knew next to nothing about animals, but quite a bit about kids. Seeing as I didn’t actually have to touch/feed/corral/clean-up after jaguars or chimpanzees or kinkajous, it worked out fine for the most part. Yes, there was some local TV footage of one of the petting zoo goats trying to eat my shirt. Yes, the smell of animal pens in summer is pretty strong. Yes, I once dropped a ferret that the kids were taking pictures with because it got super wiggly and I HAVE NEVER EVER HAD A FURRY PET AND FREAKED OUT-but overall the gig suited me. Coloring pictures of zoo animals, putting on animal-themed plays, supervising “Sharks and Minnows”, passing out goldfish crackers and walking kids over to the zoo keepers who actually taught them about the job was right up my alley.

So one of the activities we always did with the kids, no matter the age group, was design “enrichment” for the animals. We froze fruit into giant ice rings and watched the keepers hang it from a tree, and then watched the chimpanzees work to get their treat out. We filled paper towel rolls with whatever food raccoons eat (I couldn’t tell you, despite actually physically holding their food-I absolutely don’t know what to do with animals) and tied tissue paper to the ends to make them puzzle out how to get whatever they could smell but couldn’t see. The Chattanooga Zoo often takes in animals that have nowhere else to go-there might be a serval cat abandoned by its owner here, a declawed mountain lion confiscated from other owners there. These animals are saved and cared for-and not really meant to be in a zoo.

My husband and I have been kind of sharing an office for the last six months. He used to travel every week for work, and this is the longest stretch of time we’ve been in the same state in the last thirteen years. I duck in and out occasionally to get some writing done or to find an old file or grab a new book, but I’ve kind of abandoned my stake in the room for him to get all of his conference calls done in peace. One time back in March or April when I had snuck in quietly, mimed the question, “Are you on video?” to which he arched his eyebrows in a “Yes”, I got to hear a question from his Zoom call- “How are you doing out there?”

My guy laughed and answered, “You know, it’s like being in a zoo. It’s a really nice zoo. It’s got great amenities, all my favorite stuff. I have a good view out the window and I’m keeping fed. But you can’t leave.” I thought about that a lot for the rest of quarantine, about what animals and people are meant to do and what we’re stuck doing right now.

A mountain lion isn’t meant to pace back and forth in an enclosure, no matter how well furnished the enclosure is or how closely the artifice matches its natural surroundings. The tarantulas are not meant to be in small plastic boxes and handed crickets. I bet we had migrating animals that sure as hell weren’t migrating down Holtzclaw Avenue.

When animals can’t do what they are meant to do, they can become despondent-and this is where “enrichment” comes in. Zoo keepers I’m sure have a lot of other tricks and tools, but it never escaped me that having them there to set up new puzzles and games was definitely important to the animals’ well-being. When you can’t escape where you are you need something to keep your mind sharp, novelty to look forward to, a challenge and a treat.

Towards the end of summer before online learning was supposed to start we all had kind of lost the desire or ability to keep morale up. We don’t do much outside the house. When we do it is carefully couched in precautions, or moved to times when we’re less likely to bump into a million people, or spaced out from other outings to minimize our risks. We are working on fixing up and decorating our enclosure. We try to make it more usable and well-equipped. We’ve been in our zoo for six months.

Humans are social creatures, a species that famously enjoys solving new and varied problems by going out into the world and grappling with the complexities of whole communities, whole societies. Everything we just do for survival-feeding ourselves, securing shelter, keeping hydrated-has become a collective activity that involves hundreds if not thousands of people working cooperatively. Human beings as an animal species has evolved over millennia to interact with each other and to keep our brains busy. No matter how introverted I may be, it seems to be an inescapable truth that being on my own with just a few other people the majority of the time is at odds with what is optimal. 

We had hummed along doing okay for a long time, and then we weren’t. There is undoubtedly immense grief we need to move through, worry to constantly temper, and uncertainty that erodes the foundations under our feet. But in addition, we have had to be both the zoo animals and the zoo keepers AT THE SAME TIME. We have needed enrichment and don’t have thoughtful caregivers who fuss over our survival and our happiness as their sole job. We don’t have some outside benevolent force arranging things to challenge our brains or surprise us or delight us. (I mean if you’re very lucky you might-Thanks Wendy!) For the majority of the time, especially over a long daycamp-less summer, we’ve had to arrange for enrichment for ourselves. And the longer this summer has worn on the harder it is to come up with something you’ve never thought to come up with before. It’s like trying to tickle yourself-which is to say it’s nearly impossible. You can occupy your time pleasantly enough, you can indulge in treats, but it’s really incredibly difficult to challenge or surprise yourself without outside help. We try to be thoughtful zoo keepers for each other, but generally most zoo keepers get nights and weekends off and have someone else picking up the overnight shifts so that they can have time not thinking about caring for zoo animals 24/7.

The kids started online school two weeks ago. And having been a teacher before, having seen a zoo in action and now really truly getting how important enrichment is for somewhat trapped creatures I hope I don’t sound insulting when I say how happy I am to have some zoo keepers back in our life. Having teachers thoughtfully working out how to keep students engaged and challenged and socially happy has taken a huge weight off of our shoulders. Having a collective of humans working cooperatively so that we all share the load of figuring out how to give kids what they need feels so much more aligned with what humans want to do. We want to have community, we want to solve problems at an interconnected level. This can’t be easy for our teachers, not at all, and I hope against hope that they have time to rest and that they are being cared for by the people in their lives. But I am relieved and happy with this part of our lives changing.

I still have to figure out my own enrichment, but without worrying about whether my kids have enough I think I can. Writing this blog post alone is self-administered enrichment-my brain has something new to focus on, a puzzle to work through, a treat at the end. I heard once that being a writer is giving yourself homework every night for the rest of your life, and that feels true and relevant. I’ve also signed myself up for an online class, so that maybe when that starts I’ll get a break from being my own zoo keeper for a while-since it seems quite unlikely that I’ll get to escape this zoo anytime soon.

Before and After


For an audio recording of this piece through Allears click here

Enamel Pins
Part of my enamel pin collection in small boxes. You can see a Princess Leia, a rainbow brain, a hedgehog, a goldfish, and a record player among other pins

On the last day we got to hang out, the kindergartner I work with came in from recess bouncing. I watch out for him on the playground, making sure he has lots of time to be goofy but that he doesn’t start a revolution of five-year-olds refusing to come in when the whistle blows. On Fridays my job is (was? I don’t want to think about this in the past tense) easier because it’s hot lunch day, but then he books it inside while I struggle to keep my speed-walking from becoming a full-on sprint, quietly calling after him “No parkour-walking feet, walking feet!” By the time I catch up with him and have folded myself into the tiny chair next to his desk, he’s bopping his head chomping on his first bite, declaring through a mouthful of chicken fingers, “I did good today!”

“Oh absolutely, dude. That’s going in the report.” I’ll circle a big smiley face on the daily form.

“It’s supposed to be filled in, not circled.”

“You’re right, my man, I forgot.”

On Mondays, without the lure of once-a-week fast food, the way I got him to cheerfully come inside from the playground was by switching up the enamel pin I would put on the lanyard for my employee ID, covering it up with my hand and asking if he had noticed which one I was wearing. He would giggle and shake his head “no”. The rules of our game meant I wouldn’t reveal which pin I was wearing until we got all the way to the classroom. On Mondays, and Mondays only, we would walk in together at a leisurely pace, his eyes squinting in a smile locked onto me until I removed my hand for the big reveal right inside the classroom doorway.

The last Monday I worked he was absent, home sick with super-ordinary-for-small-kids-in-the-spring croup. I was home with the same ordinary virus the next few days and then? Then school was over for the year.

I miss the routine of changing my pin once a week. I miss taking thirty seconds each Monday morning to let him know that we are a team bound together by games and silliness and affection. I miss picking out which one would seem like a good-enough surprise, a good-enough reward for coming in from outside. That last Monday the pin I had put on was Dory, the blue tang, swimming in her coffee pot. It’s my favorite, and his favorite, too, and the first pin he noticed that set off our game.

I’m not changing it until I see him again.

This was a piece I wrote this week as an assignment from the Steppenwolf Education Department-for Maker May they had a two part webinar with essayist Samantha Irby and Ian Belknap of Write Club discussing and developing Live Lit-pieces that are meant to be performed. Maybe I’ll eventually figure out how to post a video here as well, to adhere better to the spirit of the assignment! These were written and revised with a two minute limit in mind, about something from before lockdown that you miss terribly. I want to thank them so much for everything. It was a welcome change of pace, and some of the only new writing I’ve been able to get myself to do. Incidentally, my eleven-year-old had an almost identical writing assignment for his online classes this week. Although his video conference was, like, his twentieth, and mine was my first.  

Locked Down/Locked Out

Locked Down
Image Description: A school as seen from a car in the school’s parking lot, children and teachers at the front door by the entrance.

I wrote this several years ago. Every winter day when I drove my children to school after Sandy Hook, I felt my chest tighten wondering if this would be the last time I saw them. I wouldn’t turn and walk away until I saw them safely in the building, knowing I would never live past the regret of not looking after them until the last possible second if they should die that day. I parked on a different street, walked a different route after that Friday in December, anxiety and magical thinking working together to make me believe that I was somehow protecting them by avoiding the things I did that day, the day small children were murdered in their school. A few months later the incident described below happened. 

I think a few differences have happened over the last few years that make this story a time capsule of fear and hope that don’t carry over to today.

When this story took place, though I was scared, I felt that many good people were trying to figure out how to prevent mass shootings from happening again. I felt confident that every other mother and father in the country was feeling the weight on their hearts as I was. I was wrong. There were some very evil people who value money over children’s lives who have been operating covertly assuring that nothing-not even prior domestic abuse charges-got in the way of gun manufacturers selling more guns. Concealed carry became the norm in even blue states like Illinois. Open carry became the norm in red states like Texas. There is little to prevent any American from gathering as much ammunition and as many guns as a terrorist organization might procure. The mass shootings got even worse.

When this story took place I thought that we were starting to dismantle toxic masculinity. I thought we were turning a corner on how we raised our boys into men, that we were starting to assure them both that they were allowed to feel pain and that they were not allowed to use violence on their fellow human beings-that it wasn’t weakness to have feelings and it wasn’t a show of  strength to abuse those within their world. Maybe this is a violent death rattle that will destroy so much more before these toxic ideas finally expire.  I was a teacher. I had a firm belief that we had power to help change the lives of young men who could have turned to violence and enacted interventions to stop them. I still believe we can, but I do not believe there are enough people who want to find out how anymore. The young boys we had a chance of changing are now violent young men with more capacity to kill that we did nothing to dissuade.

When this story took place, I thought my fear could be contained by the idea of a school lockdown, that if I pinned my fears to this one location in space and time it wouldn’t infect the rest of my world. That the healthy white blood cells I had would route my panic and grief if I could stop it from spreading. Shootings have happened everywhere and the infection has spread. My white blood cells have given up; the infection has spread so far that I have forgotten what it was like to be fighting for my health and almost winning.

This story is both tinged with more fear than I now feel, because resignation has subsumed my alarm, and more hope than I now feel, because change I thought was coming was never on its way at all. 

I never thought I would wish to be able to have the feelings in this story again. Once I get something so ugly on paper I hope to have flung the feelings that inspired it far away from my body. I now wish they still felt like they were a part of me.

There are red and white lights flashing as I pull into the parking lot, but no sirens.  I go to stand in the cold with the other parents, waiting for our preschoolers to be released.  They are not.  A police car has come to silently join the fire truck and ambulance that are already here, and we realize that the children are in lockdown. This isn’t a drill.

“I knew they shouldn’t have put the little ones in a junior high.” The first parent among us starts to express our fears. I nod, almost imperceptibly, as I always thought it was strange to put three to five-year-olds in the same building as teenagers. It was a temporary solution to a space shortage, but an odd one. One that had already scared us, but we couldn’t protest as we were lucky to be getting services at all with so many budget cuts.

We sit stand quietly, tensed and staring at the door that won’t open.

“It’s been five minutes.”

I try to steady my breathing and hope against hell that the children don’t suspect that anything unusual is happening. That they are huddled in their coats and mittens and backpacks in a corner, following their teacher’s directions to stay silent and still. I am able to calm myself for a moment knowing that they always listen to her, even though they are squirmy tiny people.

“It’s been ten.”

We shift lightly back and forth on cold feet, trying to warm ourselves. Or maybe we are getting ready to spring. There are about forty of us who are realizing what it means to be the ones locked out: we can’t do anything to protect them. I fantasize about scooping up my thirty-five pound child and running, though I know that isn’t what you are supposed to do. And where could I possibly go to get far enough away? We are all listening, hoping that nothing unusual punctuates the silence inside the school.

The woman who first spoke up has a little boy who, at the end of each school day, runs straight for her laughing, yelling “Mommy!” She catches him up and swings him high into the air and lets him fall into her arms. Every day. She speaks again, “He had a twin sister. She had a hole in her heart and she died, as a baby.” More quietly she adds, “Nothing else can happen to him. To us.”

I finally use my words to dampen the panic in my throat. I say something about how it will be all right. I say something about how I know about these things, because I was a teacher. I was a teacher who handled these hormonal, dangerous teenagers for a long time. I knew they could be good and kind, and lonely and angry and confused. I tell them about how we handled a six-foot tall boy who brought a very large knife to school. Without injury. Without harm. And that the boy eventually came back and was welcomed and never hurt anyone. I say something about protocol, and drills, and empathy, and vigilance, and dedication. And redemption.

“It’s been fifteen minutes.”

I want to shatter the glass of the doors that won’t open and run to the room where I know my youngest is and be there with him. In case anything happens, it won’t happen without me. It can’t.  I want to whisk him away from everyone else in the world forever. I want to put myself between him and everything. Where no one can get to him except through me, and he will not get to anyone else without my intervention.

Doors far from us open, and one slim boy is escorted out by four police officers. Silently, they box him in. He is in handcuffs, but his arms are not held to keep him from running away.  He won’t. His face is the same as my six-foot tall boy’s.

The doors in front of us swing open and my preschooler is at my side. I grab his face in my hands to see that he is smiling, not worried. I hoist his thirty-five pounds against my hip, and realize how hard it would have been to run carrying him. And how impossible it would have been to know that I was locked away from him, and not even given the chance to try.

Essay at The Rumpus

Palm Tree
Image Description: Palm trees set against a grey sky

Hi Everyone!

I have an essay today at The Rumpus called Finding Shelter (you can click on the title to link to it).

It is about a hurricane evacuation in Texas, just a few weeks after Hurricane Katrina had decimated New Orleans. It is also about my inability to really be there for another person, and my realization that I needed to become better, to do better.

I am very proud of this piece. It is a longer one, and has been harder to place. I am so grateful it has found a home.



P.S. There are some really neat original illustrations by Clare Nauman that go along with it that I just LOVE!